Associated Press
In this 2007 photo, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez speaks with Ian James in San Fernando de Apure, Venezuela.

CARACAS, Venezuela — Pushing our infant son in a stroller, my wife and I stepped out of the terminal at Simon Bolivar International Airport and were approached by several taxi drivers offering to take us to Caracas. One of them, a soft-spoken young man in his 20s, offered the lowest fare by far, and I handed him one of our bags.

The small white car crawled up the hill in the darkness, then slowed and stopped. Doors opened. Two men burst into the car, one in the front passenger seat and the other in the back seat, pressing against my wife.

"Be calm," the young man in the back said, holding up a revolver, a frightened look in his eyes.

"Don't worry, nothing's going to happen to you," the man in the front said, turning another gun on me. "Don't look!"

That ordeal eight years ago introduced me to life in Venezuela, a country where events often collide in unpredictable and dramatic ways and where a wide gap frequently separates the reality on the street from the socialist-inspired dreams that President Hugo Chavez has instilled in his followers.

During more than eight years covering Venezuela, I developed a deep affection for this country where I've met many warm, free-thinking people.

Venezuela's many long-term challenges, such as crime, corruption, a troubled economy and bitter political divisions, can seem as vast as the sea of crude oil that Venezuela sits atop. And with Chavez battling cancer, the country could be headed for big political shifts and possible turmoil.

A couple of years after the robbery, I found myself sitting in the passenger seat of a Toyota 4Runner while Chavez drove through the lush, green plains of Apure state.

In our interview, he talked about his years as an army officer plotting against the government and how growing up in the rural plains had shaped his radical ideas.

"What hurts me most is poverty, and that's what made me a rebel," Chavez said.

When he slowed and lowered the tinted window, passers-by gawked and then broke into a run, screaming, "Presidente!"

One woman ran to the window with tears in her eyes and cried out "I love you!"

Chavez clasped hands and planted kisses, while they asked him for help replacing shacks with houses or treating sick relatives. Chavez promised to rescue them all.

It was a role I saw him play many times: the larger-than-life leader supporters expected to solve their many problems. At rallies, I watched as people pressed letters into the hands of Chavez's aides, asking for money to help their poor neighborhoods or fledgling cooperatives.

It was a remarkable up-close look at a populist leader in the mold of the classic Latin American caudillo, who often seemed to want to use his power and charisma for good.

But there was a downside. He could use the same force to sideline opponents and rule Venezuela with few checks.

He dominated power to such a degree that he once said on television that Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni should go to jail for 30 years for freeing a banker while he awaited trial. Today, she is still under house arrest.

Some Chavistas told me at political rallies that a leader like Chavez comes along once in a century, and that may be one point Venezuelans can agree on.

At a news conference in late 2011, I asked him point-blank what type of cancer he was diagnosed with. He had managed for months not to reveal many details about his illness.

Chavez chuckled at the question at first, then said: "You know more than I do."

He explained that a baseball-sized tumor had been removed from his pelvic region and asked: "You want me to tell you more? What for? What for? ... Isn't there some morbidity in that?"

More than a year later, after saying tests showed he was free of cancer, Chavez won re-election. Eventually, he announced the cancer was back.

One morning in January, I noticed dozens of young men had blocked an avenue by dumping trash in the road and setting it ablaze. Police in riot gear lined up and pushed the embers off the pavement, while the protesters milled around on the sidewalk.

They explained that they'd been demanding jobs at a construction site where the government was building public housing, but the company in charge wouldn't hire them.

"The only thing we want is to work," said one of the protesters, John Jairo Bello. "We're hungry to work because we have children. We have to eat."

The nervous, uncertain look in their eyes reminded me of the young men who had stolen my family's belongings and left us on the highway back in 2005.

With the guns pointed at me, I had wondered about the robbers: Who are they? Off-duty police officers trying to supplement their income? Or simply a gang of young toughs who prey on foreign tourists? What desperation drove them to this?

As I prepare to leave, I know I'll miss the macaws flying past my window and the spectacular views of El Avila, the forested mountain that towers above Caracas.

I also will remember the rivers, polluted and majestic.

The Guaire River runs through Caracas filled with sewage and flanked by the encampments of drug addicts under freeway overpasses. In 2005, Chavez pledged a full cleanup, saying on television, "I invite you all to go swimming in the Guaire soon."

Recently, as I drove across the river, I noted it still smelled of sewage and detergent, and it seemed a fitting metaphor for Venezuela's many unresolved problems. They existed before Chavez burst onto the scene, and they're likely to remain long after he's gone.

While some people call the situation hopeless or insist that one political camp or the other holds the answers, I take the view that the country's problems can be solved. The challenges are many, but Venezuela has plentiful oil earnings, creative entrepreneurs, and a strong sense of national identity that transcends the pro- and anti-Chavez political divide.

They must now make it across a turbulent stretch, aiming for the shores of a better future as a united nation.